Gaining political insight, experience through exit polling
Students in St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Chapp’s Parties and Elections course spent election day conducting exit poll surveys at 22 polling locations across Minnesota’s Second Congressional District.
They asked voters leaving the polls questions about a wide range of issues — from health care to immigration to their approval of President Trump — and whether it impacted who they supported on the ballot.
“We look at exit polls to try and understand patterns in voting behavior,” Chapp told WCCO Radio in an interview from the polls on election day. “This is really important when you hear people talking about mandates and what the election was really about. Exit polls are one lens into that. If we see a pattern where certain voters break a certain way, then that gives us some sense of a mandate for the next Congress.”
The 44 students working with Chapp on exit polling this year spread out across the Second Congressional District to talk to voters in communities ranging from Eagan to Hastings to New Prague. They stood outside each polling location — often enduring cold, rainy weather that failed to deter voter turnout — and approached voters with their survey.
As they gathered their initial data on election night, Chapp and students started to analyze preliminary trends in voter behavior that they observed. For example, one question on the survey read, “Thinking about your vote choice for Congress, would you say your choice was made in order to send a message that you support Donald Trump, to send a message that you oppose Donald Trump, or were you not sending a message about Donald Trump with your vote?”
Chapp notes that the data gathered suggests that for Democrats, the midterms were a referendum on the president — for Republicans, it was less so. “Interestingly, in our sample, 44.3 percent of Republicans said that their vote had nothing to do with Trump, while only 25.1 percent of Democrats said their vote had nothing to do with Trump,” Chapp says.
Ann Jensen ‘19, one of the student pollsters, says it was a meaningful experience to gather data directly from voters on the very issues the class is studying.
“The opportunity to read about the role of a voter’s perspective on something like the Affordable Care Act in class and then survey the very same voters about this issue the next day is powerful,” Jensen says.
Parties and Elections
St. Olaf offers Parties and Elections every two years, and Chapp has been conducting exit polls with the class since the 2008 election. The course examines the United States election process by doing hands-on field work on election day.
“Parties and Elections is a signature class for our department,” St. Olaf Associate Professor of Political Science and Department Chair Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak says. “We make sure to teach it at least every two years, to coincide with the national elections, so students can make connections between political science knowledge and current events in real time.”
What makes this class unique is that students are using their own data to inform their research. Students get to participate in all forms of the research process: literature reviews, hypothesis formation, data collection and analysis, and evaluating evidence. “This opportunity to conduct our own original research is unique and provides many useful skills, both for my time at St. Olaf and beyond,” Jensen says.
The St. Olaf Political Science Department will be hosting a conference on December 6 where the Parties and Elections class will present the results and findings of their exit poll.
Academic Civic Engagement at St. Olaf
As an Academic Civic Engagement course, this field research gives students the opportunity to get involved with the election process and learn about course topics and themes outside of the classroom in a real-world setting.
“We do our best to set up situations where students learn with and from a broader community, while producing information and analysis that people outside academia want to know,” says Tegtmeyer Pak.
“We do our best to set up situations where students learn with and from a broader community, while producing information and analysis that people outside academia want to know.” — Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak
She notes that in addition to the Parties and Elections course, students have the opportunity to study the presidential primary by actually spending Interim in New Hampshire and working on a campaign. The department also offers an American Constitutional Law class and a seminar on Immigration and Citizenship that invite students to practice engaging with a broader public while they study.
“St. Olaf political science students go on to be leaders in both the major political parties and in broader political movements,” says Tegtmeyer Pak. “Classes like this help them have the confidence to do so.”